Parents call for change after Grade 2 class with nearly 50 kids leaves some 'anxious,' 'overwhelmed'

A number of families with children at Red Deer Lake School, just south of Calgary, say their children are struggling in a large, combined Grade 2 class — and with no end in sight, they're pulling their kids from the school.

Red Deer Lake School removed wall between 2 classrooms to facilitate team teaching

Yael Moussadji has been calling on Red Deer Lake School to return to two traditional Grade 2 classrooms. She plans to send her 7-year-old daughter, Kennedy, to another school next year. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

A number of families with children at Red Deer Lake School, just south of Calgary, say their children are struggling in a large, combined Grade 2 class — and with no end in sight, they're pulling their kids from the school.

Parents say they showed up on the first day of school, in September, to find a removable wall taken down between two classrooms, leaving 47 children in the same large room with two teachers.

"There had been no advance notice to parents ... and so many of us were concerned when we saw this, " said Yael Moussadji, one of several parents who questioned school officials at the time but were given assurances the co-teaching model would work.

Over the following few months, Moussadji noticed changes in her seven-year-old daughter's behaviour. 

"When she came home, she was completely overwhelmed and required significant amount of time to decompress and settle after a school day," said Moussadji, who watched as her daughter went from loving school to wanting to avoid it.

CBC News has spoken with 11 other families who have similar concerns.

'She was overwhelmed'

"The whole situation has left us all feeling very sad," said Amy Shaw, a psychologist whose seven-year-old daughter has a hearing disability and has been struggling for months with the noise level in the combined classroom.

Shaw upgraded her daughter's hearing aides and had the overall volume adjusted but says her daughter became increasingly overwhelmed.

"The happy-go-lucky fun little girl was someone who was very serious and very withdrawn and cried easily, couldn't settle," she said.

Amy Shaw says her daughter was diagnosed with anxiety after months in the large, combined Grade 2 class. She pulled her daughter out of the school as a result. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

"The sensory experience was too much and she was eventually diagnosed with an anxiety disorder as a result."

A group of parents took their concerns to the Red Deer Lake School, the  Foothills School Division, the board of trustees and the education minister. But despite their calls for the wall to be put back up, the classrooms remain combined.

"There are several children that have formally been diagnosed with anxiety disorders … and a number of children have had other adaptations to allow them to cope," said Moussadji. "So the fact that this is going on and our concerns aren't being heard is astounding to me."

School officials respond

The Foothills School Division insists the concerns are coming from a "very small group of parents."

"The majority of the parents … support this learning and feel that their children are thriving," said Pam Rannelli, acting superintendent with the school division.

"We have assessed the learning environment to be meeting or exceeding the standards for our division and the province and so we so we don't see any need to change that environment between now and the end of the year."

According to Rannelli, there are two full-time educational assistants in the classroom. She says that while the school division is no longer willing to discuss the matter with parents as a group, the principal and teachers are willing to meet with parents individually to discuss concerns.

Rannelli says the school has taken steps to address complaints by extending the retracted temporary wall by a few feet to provide a visual barrier. The teachers are also breaking into two smaller groups more often, allowing children to leave the room for quiet time and offering counsellors and psychologists when necessary.

This style of classroom is just not working. We're not being shown any benefits by anyone.- Gillian Colborne, a parent

The noise levels have also been assessed and headphones are available, as they are in other classrooms, for students who may need help focusing.

"We're doing our best to meet the individual needs of all students," she said.

While Rannelli insists no change will be made this year, she says no decisions have been made about how the Grade 2 classes will be configured next year.

The response is not sitting well with some parents who don't understand why the school won't reconsider.

"To be so entirely let down by an institution that you've held in such high regard is just really sad," said Gillian Colborne, who went to Red Deer Lake School herself when she was a student and chose to live nearby so her children could also attend.

Colborne says her son's behaviour changed and he began to struggle academically after he was placed in the combined classroom.

"This style of classroom is just not working. We're not being shown any benefits by anyone," she said. "So it seemed to us to be extremely arbitrary and also a very simple fix."

Changing schools

Fed up with the situation, Colborne pulled her son from the school recently and enrolled him elsewhere.

"To be honest, I'm angry [and] frustrated," said Moussadji, who has written an open letter to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

Moussadji, too, is taking her child out of Red Deer Lake School at the end of the school year.

"I'm just in disbelief that we have had to engage in this process and have had door after door shut in our faces when there should be people clamouring to advocate for us and our children. That's what education is about."

Amy Shaw pulled her daughter out of Red Deer Lake School last week. At least one other family has already done the same.

"'We're really disappointed at how we were treated and more importantly how the most vulnerable of the community — the children — have been affected by this," she said.

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Jennifer Lee


Jennifer Lee is a CBC News reporter based in Calgary. She worked at CBC Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, before landing in Calgary in 2002. If you have a health or human interest story to share, let her know.